• Paul Coleman

...Walked through a War Zone: Part 5: 'Who will come looking for you, if you disappear?'


American Forests Magazine Article April 1995

April 20th 1995: Not long after leaving Konjic I walked through a village where there was a large military presence. I was getting fed up of being arrested and though I was always treated with respect, I never knew if I was going to end up dead. So when I saw all the troops I put on my friendliest smile, gave a big wave and walked right by the base. It worked, nobody asked any questions. Two kilometers I tried it again with soldiers who were playing basketball in a former school yard. They called me over and I casually chatted with them through a chain link fence.

I was just about to leave when a big black car came roaring up and four beefy characters with KGB haircuts, serious attitudes and cheap suits got out, picked up my backpack, and pushed me into the backseat. The doors slammed and I found myself sitting between two men who looked like they ate people for breakfast. It was altogether sinister and I was not looking forward to what might happen next. I was returned to the base I’d so recently passed and interrogated. Thankfully no one pulled out my finger nails out and after two hours of questioning I was fed and led outside to watch and wave at a huge convoy of troops having a victory parade. Somewhere a great battle had been won. The entire base ran to the street to cheer and salute their comrades. It was a rowdy five minutes. After a strong Turkish coffee, I was released.

A few kilometers later I was stopped again. This time by a battle weary troop, resting on a hillside. I was hoping to pass the troop without being detained. I still had thirteen kilometers to go before I reached Tarcin, and it was getting late. I smiled and waved, but it was no good. They insisted I walk up the slope to where they sat. I took off my pack, laid it on the ground and hiked up to meet them. Instantly I felt a lack of respect. The soldiers, grubby from the front lines, jostled and pushed me. They were rough and for a fleeting moment I remembered the story of Captain Cook who was hacked to death by an angry mob on the beach of Hawaii. ‘No. Don’t think of that.’ I thought. ‘Try to be calm. Smile.’ It was not easy to do, but it was what I did and it calmed the situation a little. One character took a great deal of liberties. He took great gulps from my water bottle, tried to pick my pockets, and tugged at my clothes. This lack of respect and their unusual line of questioning led me to believe they were trying to scare me and I must admit, it was working. The commander was a large middle aged man with dark skin, wavy hair and a thick black mustache. His off-hand air of authority befitted a commander of battle hardened troops. He spoke through a young translator and waved a huge knife menacingly through the air. At first the questions were the same as the ones asked by my captors at other bases. “What are you doing? Where are you from? Why are you walking to Sarajevo? What do you think of Bosnia? What do you think of the Bosnian people?” Then the questions became more specific. “Have you taken any photographs today? Can you prove what you are doing, who you represent?”

It was time to bring out the Book Of Fairy Tales. While the Commander examined the book, the translator apologized for his rusty language skills. He had no need to. His English was better than mine. “My dear Paul.” He would say. “My commander would like to know…..” The commander resumed his questioning. “Who knows you are here?” “The United Nations, international organizations, people in many countries. The Peace Keepers at the Malbat base in Konjic know I am on the road to Tarcin, and three days ago I spoke to my friends in Washington. They know I am here.” “But they don’t know exactly where you are right now. Do they?” I looked down the valley along the empty road, and admitted that he was right. Nobody knew where I was at that moment. An order was given and my bag was searched. The Commander spoke rapidly to the translator. “My Dear Paul, My Commander wishes to know who would come looking if you disappeared.” I did not like this line of questioning and I tried to give him the impression that killing me would be more trouble than it was worth. “I am Ambassador to a United Nations Peace Messenger Initiative, and an adviser to UNESCO. I have spoken to thousands of people as I have walked from San Francisco. People know I am in the danger zone. If they don’t hear from me they will contact their governments. Somebody will come looking.” “How will they know you have disappeared? There is a war going on”.

I sensed a gun coming to my head. A multitude of thoughts rocketed through my mind. I wondered if this was a good time to die, looked to the heavens, radiant with sunlight and then to the Commander. I spoke firmly because I was tired of feeling threatened. “I am not a politician. Nor am I a religious leader. I am just a person going to plant a tree in Sarajevo. I have led people here in spirit to deliver a message of hope to the people of Sarajevo. I am a friend of Bosnia. Killing me would not be good public relations”

The line of questioning changed, but it didn’t get any better. “What religion are you?” This was the last question I wanted to hear in the middle of a war between Christians and Muslims. I was obviously not a Muslim and at this time the Commanders brethren were being killed by people who were Christian. I decided that no matter what happened next that I had not come all this way to tell anything less that the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me god. “I was Christened Roman Catholic.” I said. “But, raised Protestant. I respect people regardless of their colour or belief.” The Commander inhaled to his full stature and pounded his chest. “We're Muslim. We believe in Allah. Allah is the only God! Do you believe in Allah?” This was it. They were either going to love me or kill me, but definitely they were going to hear from me. As these might be my last words I went all around the universe in my explanation of what I believed. “We have different traditions, but what we essentially believe the same. My God is the Universe, the Earth, the Stars, and the Moon, everything that is about and within us. We are all God. You say ‘Allah’ is one God. My God is one God.” Thankfully I had an understanding of the Koran, which I hoped was in line with his, and plainly and squarely I looked him in the eyes and said. “ Yes! I guess I believe in Allah.” The questioning had gone on long enough. I looked down the valley I had came and felt remarkably relaxed. It was a beautiful day. The sun shone and I felt at peace. No more trying to save my life. I was ready to die. I stood up took the journal off the Commander’s lap, snapped it shut, held it up, smiled and said, “Hey! It’s a fairy tale.” The Commander put down his knife and spoke to the translator. “My dear Paul. My Commander wants to know if there’s anything you need from us?” I was slightly confused. “Do you need any food? Do you need a car? Would you like some money?” I was heart warmed by these offers. These people are in a war. Food and money is hard to come by. I thanked him for his offer, explained that I had recently eaten, and had enough money. I didn’t need a car. I needed to walk.

House Arrest With Almin and Seja

After this nerve racking ordeal I was glad to leave and the next dark tunnel I walked through did not seem so bad. On the other side of the tunnel I found a small village with a shop and bought a bar of chocolate, while I was happily munching a very serious military policeman came over and arrested me, ordering me into his car. I wanted to be in Sarajevo tomorrow and here I was arrested yet again. He searched through my papers and found a fax that a friend had sent me, with a hand drawn map on it. He made a big deal out of this and took me to the Tarcin Police Station. On my arrival the officer in charge immediately ordered me a hot meal and insisted that I eat before being questioned. This courtesy made me feel at ease. During the meal I explained that I had a contact in town. His name was Sejo. He was a baker. A runner fetched him. Before Sejo arrived the police found a translator. His name was Almin. Almin was Sejo’s best friend. He described himself as a “Warrior”.


Photo credit: BBC

This time the questions focused on the fax. The fax named contacts, and on it was sketched a rough map displaying the route over Mount Igman, the positions of snipers and the tunnel into Sarajevo. It was a very valuable piece of information for me. But apparently it was much more valuable than I realised; much of the information was considered secret. The police placed me under house arrest at Sejo’s home.

It was all very friendly, but the police kept my documents and the fax. We walked to Sejo’s home. This was to be my first night in the home of a Muslim family. Before we entered Sejo explained that his mother was very ill. The home consisted of three tiny rooms. One served as a kitchen and shower. The other two rooms were bedrooms. Sejo shared his bedroom with his brother, who was fighting on the front lines. Their bedroom was also the lounge. Almin appeared with a home video containing footage of him being carried off a battle field. A bullet had clipped the tip of his penis and exited through his backside. Thankfully his wound did not stop him talking about girlfriends. We had a good laugh and I was very happy that I was under arrest with such nice people.

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